What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

This installment continues my discussion of what special education teachers might face in the coming years. Part 2 examines larger scale changes to policy and protocol. See the first part here.

Changing Conditions

Working conditions for special education teachers will be shaped by forces beyond the walls of schools.

4. Defunding reduces resources.

Anyone aware of special education’s history knows that IDEA has been funded at a fraction of what originally had been envisioned. As of this writing, IDEA has not lost funding per the first budget of the Trump era. That doesn’t mean the current Department of Education won’t look for roundabout ways to scale back IDEA in the coming years. Should this happen, money available for interventions, testing materials, and even paraprofessional support could be in jeopardy. Such cuts are speculative right now, though. Cuts to Title II, which would affect funding for professional development rather immediately, are less speculative. Also quite real are attempts by state departments of education to cap percentages of students receiving services (Texas, for example).

5. Paths to certification become muddier.

The traditional path to teacher certification has included a Bachelor’s program in education (getting certified through a Master’s program could count here as well). This path has splintered to include alternates available through online universities and what amount to be internships or residencies through organizations such as Teach for America or Relay. Urban districts have been offering emergency certification paths for years in states that will condone these. Some states allow charters to employ high percentages of uncertified teachers or teachers with non-traditional types of certifications.

These paths still result in certifications, but they could change prospects for teachers following traditional paths. Those teachers going the way of a Bachelor’s in education might find themselves getting pinched out of jobs in schools that rely heavily on alternate certification paths to fill vacancies (think large urban districts and charter schools). This affects all teachers, but since urban schools employ a disproportionately large number of special education teachers, it hits them hardest.

In the same category would be the relative complexity of that traditional path. Some states have made certification more complicated and specific for special education teachers in recent years. This increase is meant to act as a filter, ensuring high-quality teacher candidates. It has worked too well in some colleges of education, resulting in a dearth of students making it to teacher candidacy. The testing requirements alone have caused some universities to consider shuttering their teacher preparation programs per the low number of students passing the tests.

6. Continued legal strife makes the field unwieldy.

The past few years have seen a decrease in the number of special education cases going to due process. Much of that drop has resulted from significant drops in a handful of specific states, but it’s still a drop. Schools could be getting better at complying with IDEA and various state regulations. Parents also might be catching on to the lack of actual damages that can be recouped through due process (in other words, they don’t get a cash settlement, which surprisingly isn’t obvious to all parents).

This doesn’t mean special education is now free of consternation. Consider the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County Schools and the prospect of reexamining educational benefit. The precedent set by this case seems poised to give parents more opportunities to apply pressure to schools on issues of service and progress. Schools could find themselves tripping over this precedent for years as they struggle to figure out how to satisfy educational benefit for low-incidence students. Attorneys representing parents are likely grinning. Administrators and special education teachers should be at least somewhat wary. The risk of inadvertently discriminating against a student isn’t going away.

In the next section, I’ll talk about broader societal and even scientific changes that could rock the very existence of special education.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit, Pt. 2

Back in January, I wrote about Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The US Supreme Court recently reached a unanimous decision in the case, siding with the family. Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools caught national attention earlier this year, partly because of a cute dog. This latest decision became attached to Neil Gorsuch’s Senate testimony per his ruling in a similar case. Both cases briefly stirred headlines for reasons other than their importance in special education.

Endrew F. eclipses Fry in potential magnitude. The core of the case is educational benefit. Must schools ensure students with IEPs simply make some measurable progress, or must they prove this progress is meaningful? The Supreme Court has found something closer to the latter, with the ruling mandating schools must prove students are making appropriate progress per each student’s circumstance. Although the difference might seem subtle, the scope is enormous. Future special education teachers will study this case as undergraduates.

“Appropriate progress” will be the focus of case-by-case deliberation, but it’s a leap from the previous requirement of schools to demonstrate discernible growth within a student’s program. The new implication suggests there is an acceptable range of progress for each student. Defining this range could be difficult. Some families will reject any deterministic range based on evaluation findings that the schools offer. Some might interpret “appropriate progress” as needing to be aligned with age and grade level progress. Such a conception of progress would be ideal, but in many cases would belie the range of abilities that led to a special education evaluation. Regardless, the built-in controversy seems to forecast a bumper crop of due process hearings.

As with Fry, advocates have heralded the decision in Endrew F. as a victory for students with disabilities. I wonder if it will be. My prediction is the same schools that currently struggle to meet the requirements of IDEA and of existing IEPs will continue to struggle. Now families will have more leverage to come after these schools for compensatory education when students fail to make “appropriate (and possibly unrealistic) progress.” I suspect this ruling will do at least as much to create additional settlements as it will to help students with disabilities get better at reading, writing, or doing math. It certainly will increase pressure on schools and might set some up to lose.

Any thoughts from readers? How will IEP teams define “appropriate?” To what degree will this decision shift special education in practice and even in concept? Does anyone else see this as a path to increased litigation? Share your insights in the comments.

 

 

 

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit, Pt. 2